Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Rescue operations in Uttarakhand: Constitution blocking effective relief operations?

If media reports are to be believed, not even a requisition for aid to civil authorities have been received by the Battalion Commander at Harsil. All their rescue and relief actions had been on their own and on humanitarian considerations. Thousands of people have been left stranded, many missing and several dead. Relatives and friends of those missing were running around not knowing whom to approach for any credible information. In such a vast area, the relief agencies were unable to identify areas where people were struck or needed help. The badly hit Ruidraprayag did not apparently have a district magistrate for three days during the crisis. There were no efforts to stop the pilgrims going beyond Rishikesh after the tragedy had struck. Communications had broken down in many of these areas. The list is endless. The Home Minister of India has gone on record to declare that lack of coordination between relief agencies was hampering rescue work in Uttarakhand. Such things are bound to happen in a haphazardly launched operation without a proper coordinating body or a head.
India’s disaster response mechanism
One did not expect such disarray at least after the Disaster Management Act 2005 were passed and the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) came into being.  The Agency was mandated to laydown policies, plans and guidelines for disaster management. Based on the statutory provisions provided for in the Act, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) was constituted in 2006. As of today the Force has 10 battalions, each with over 1100 personnel. The personnel have been provided by BSF, CRPF, ITBP, CISF and SSB. All the ten battalions have been equipped and trained to respond to natural as well as man-made disasters. Four of these battalions have also been trained and equipped for response during chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) emergencies. These battalions have been located at 10 different places in the country. Did this agency not visualize coordination as a part of rescue and relief work?
Leadership counts
The Indian Army and the Indian Air Force are neither trained nor equipped for flood relief or disaster management. It is the leadership, discipline and culture developed within the forces that have made them versatile. Their imaginative use of their military equipment, skills and their administrative abilities has stood them in good stead.
The Army has constructed temporary bridges at Ghangariya and Sonprayag to provide an alternate route to stranded pilgrims and tourists at Gauri Kund (Rudraprayag). They have also undertaken expansion of the helipad at Gauri Kund besides constructing a temporary one at Ganesh Chatti, all under very difficult circumstances. Thousands of people have been evacuated and a number of rescue sorties have been flown by the Indian Air Force and the Army Aviation. Those stranded were provided shelter, medical aid and some food wherever possible with the available jawan’s rations. Media reports suggest that even delivery of some women in advanced stages of pregnancy were managed. 
Government’s response
The Government on the other hand has appointed a former bureaucrat as nodal officer for better synergy. If newspaper reports are to be believed, the nodal officer has convened a meeting of top officials on June 24, 2013 (Monday) to streamline rescue efforts. Why should the meeting wait till Monday when he was appointed on Friday June 21? Is it because Saturday and Sunday happens to be holidays? Compare this with what is happening on ground. Are the Armed Forces and the Central Armed Police Forces having a weekend break? This is typical of the Indian bureaucracy. Things happen at their own pace and at their convenience. Peoples’ agony and lives can wait.
Senior officials will now have to rush to attend the meeting leaving the crucial relief work at hand. Rescue and relief actions are coordinated on ground and cannot be done either through meetings of top officials or through remote controls. The bureaucrat concerned may be a very capable officer but what is his ground knowledge of Uttarakhand or experience in disaster and relief operations?  These are certain issues which cannot be resolved on file or without going on ground to see the problem at hand from time to time.
The appointment of the nodal officer bypassing the NDMA raises a larger question of the capability of the established institutions of the Government to handle crisis situations. During the Daulat Beg Oldie crisis, the Ministry of Defence was bypassed and the China Study Group (CSG) took over the situation.  The model has now been repeated. Does this trend imply that our government bodies are incapable of handling difficult situations? Well established efficient governments do not panic and shift control of situations to individuals sidelining permanent structures designed to handle events as a part of their role.
The questions
The Indian Army and the Indian Air Force and its leadership have very intimate knowledge of the terrain conditions in these areas. Almost every Army officer and jawan would have walked through most of these areas in the course of their duties. Army has its detachments in and around most of the affected areas. It has the manpower, transport, communication, medical facilities, some form of shelter and logistic arrangements and above all the leadership capabilities to handle the situation of this magnitude effectively. It already has a well-established command and control set up in the area. Being a joint operation, it could have ordered a suitably composed tactical headquarters with Army and Air Force representatives to be  established with a senior officer as overall in charge of the operations at an appropriate location. Based on the assessment of the commanders on ground, additional manpower and resources could have been requisitioned and moved to the required spots as a matter of habit.
Firstly, why not a coordinating agency right at the beginning of the rescue works? Why did we have to wait all these days? Why did the Government not consider it appropriate to task the Indian Army to coordinate the efforts to put to optimal use the available resources and instead decided to nominate a bureaucrat as a nodal officer? It appears it is the aversion to place civil resources under an Army commander was the impediment.A political party  took the Constitution as an alibi for not handing over the situation to the Army stating that it is meant to work under civilian control. The present disaster is an extraordinary one.  Hasn’t situations been handed over to the Army in a number of insurgency situations? Why not now? Peoples’ lives are at stake. Constitution exists for the good of the people and not the other way round. When a Constitution becomes the instrument for prolonging the sufferings and sorrow of the citizens or prevents its alleviation it becomes a redundant document not worth the piece of paper it is written on.
The paranoia of the Army take over, a fiction which has been successfully employed by the bureaucracy to degrade the Defence Services and keep them out of the mainstream wherever possible was the logic. Or was it due to the fear that Army might steal the show and the political mileage that could have been accrued would have been lost?
Given the task, the Army would have mustered the able bodied local civilians and organized them for relief work giving them a sense of participation and above all the experience to handle such situations. Why did we miss on that opportunity?
Incidentally, The Ministry of Home Affairs National Disaster Management web site (See link) shows 74 individuals as having participated in foreign training and study tours. Not a single soldier has found a place in that list. Why? You can’t have one set of people going on foreign jaunts at tax payers’ expense and the other destined for the dirty work. Where are all those trained man power? What role are they performing in this crisis? Why not train those who really would be available to act when the need arises? Someone needs to answer.
The situation that has come about in Uttarakhand area is unprecedented. Lives of people including women and children are involved. Shouldn’t the Government’s approach be to provide relief to the people at the earliest and in the most efficient manner than counting on turf and other trivialities? 
It also raises a very serious doubt if the NDMA and NDRF are capable of carrying out effective rescue and relief work under Chemical, biological, Nuclear or radiological scenarios? What will happen if there is a Chernobyl or a Fukushima Daiichi like nuclear disaster? Will Army be again rushed in? Will another bunch of bureaucrats be tasked to manage the situation? Can the people of the country bank upon the government to protect them?   
It is time the Government and its administration becomes responsive, effectual and accountable. It needs to respect and have faith in its own established institutions. All this is possible only if we shed this generalist bureaucracy and go in for a professional administration.
Author is a retired Brigadier


  1. I have Not heard a single bureaucrat or any politician directly praising army and airforce for saving thousands of life in uttarakhand. i am happy the people have faith in defence forces and they know who is their real saviour.

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